It's a family reunion in the era of American tribal politics, and what could go wrong? Plenty, including murder, when the Callahan clan convenes at a New England country inn and one of the most politically outspoken relatives is the victim of a bizarre poisoning.
Timothy Callahan and his long-time spouse, Albany PI Don Strachey, contend not just with dampened spirits but with injustice when a misguided local cop zeroes in on an innocent Callahan. PI Strachey has to unearth a complicated family's hidden history, nail the real killer, and expose an act of long-contained violent rage in this disturbing tale of the way we live now.
"No politics" was the byword everybody attending the Callahan family reunion had pretty much agreed on, but of course in the era of Trump that didn't last long.
"Did Stan really say that?" an incredulous Timothy asked his sister Beth. "I mean, I guess there's no harm in it now that he's done it. But one of the things Ann Carmichael so despised about Trump was his pathological dishonesty. So Stan telling his mother on her deathbed that Trump had just been impeached was a little bit...let's just say ironic."
Beth showed her younger brother her patient but unpersuaded half smile, a look she probably had honed over the years as an elementary school principal in Poughkeepsie. "Well, her last breath, Stan told me, sounded almost like a sigh of relief. After all those months of chemotherapy hell, Ann deserved something cheering to ease her into the beyond. And the picture in her mind of Trump ridden out of DC on a political rail must have felt even better than the morphine."
Being a family member only by way of same-sex marriage, I trod carefully in these discussions. But I nonetheless added, "The medical directive was for palliative care. And that sure was what she got."
A rational man, Timmy no doubt saw the logic of this, but he still looked bothered. "Didn't Ann believe in an afterlife? What if she gets to Sodality Heaven and she looks down and Trump is still in Wilkes-Barre screeching about fake news and the Russia hoax? She won't appreciate having been lied to by her only son."
"Then she'll have a few choice words when she and Stan meet again. Not that the chances of that happening are all that great."
"Why, because Stan is headed for limbo?"
Beth laughed lightly.
"One problem is," Timothy went on, "this is going to get around, and it sort of violates the no politics rule. Lewis and Thelma are going to be ripshit, as are some others. Jack Potts, and probably Aunt Belinda. They're all rabid Trumpies. This is going to get really interesting really fast."
We'd all been worried about something like this happening. So much so that there had even been talk of cancelling, or at least postponing, the two-years-in-the-planning Callahan extended-family reunion. A few Trumpers as well as a few anti-Trumpers were so rabid in their opinions that Timmy was afraid shouting matches or even physical violence could break out. "We have to be careful Tuttleston doesn't turn into Charlottesville," Timmy had warned Beth, Stan and me. And now here we were.
I said, "Maybe word won't get around. Nobody heard Stan murmur in his mom's ear that Trump had just been impeached and removed from office except the Hospice nurse and the priest, right?"
"No, Giselle Pruitt was there too, and she won't be able to keep her mouth shut," Beth said. "She just happened to show up, bringing a plate of brownies for a woman who hadn't taken in solid food for over a week. I seriously doubt she's for Trump, but she does enjoy a good story that she can distribute far and wide."
We were seated on rockers on the comfy front porch of the Tuttleston Inn, in the leafy, Berkshires hill town where Beth and Stan had come for their honeymoon thirty years earlier and which they re-visited whenever they could. Most Callahans had agreed that holding the family get-together there instead of in Poughkeepsie, where so many of them had grown up, made sense.
Poughkeepsie was not quite the pleasant and prosperous small city it had been before most of IBM took a hike. And August in the airy hills of Western Massachusetts seemed as though it was going to be more salubrious than the semi-tropical Hudson Valley--or seemed so, at least, until a persistent hot spell settled over all of New England rendering even the mostly mild Berkshires meteorologically Panama-like.
Trying to change the subject a bit, I asked, "What about the mystery man? Does anybody know what his politics are?"
This drew blank looks. "Nobody knows much about him at all," Timmy said.
"All we know," Beth mused, "is that a man named Gerald Callahan contacted Aunt Belinda and told her he'd done some kind of genealogical search and found out he was related to us. Belinda mentioned the family reunion, and this guy asked if he could come."
"Belinda's a Trumpie," Timmy said. "So that's not a good sign."
We all sat trying to avoid looking too glum and peering out at the late-afternoon fair-weather clouds. Timmy and Beth were in Bermuda shorts and sandals, and I noted that they had identical creamy white skin. Timmy's was marred only by a small scar on his left leg from the time we were having sex on a beach along the Gulf of Thailand and I carelessly rolled him onto the small knife we had been using to pare a ripe mango. He had needed three stitches, and I have always been grateful that he understood my intentions that day were good.
"We'll soon know what to expect," Beth said. "The Pottses will be here any minute, and cousin Carl too. Stan said he ran into Carl in Glens Falls. He recognized Carl's car before he recognized Carl himself because it's still festooned with Bernie stickers."
The widower Carl Callahan was famous in the family for his aggressively promoted social-democratic politics. After his wife Mary Ellen died ten years earlier, Carl contacted and thought he might date the left-wing radio firebrand Amy Goodman, whom he had long been secretly in love with, he confessed to family members. But nothing came of this, and Carl remained single, dating a variety of Glens Falls women he sometimes met at the bar of the St. Cloud Hotel, where he hung out. He taught history at Glens Falls Community College. This was not far from where Stan Carmichael's just-deceased mother lived, explaining why they ran into each other.
"Carl finally quit smoking," Beth went on, "and Stan says he's crankier than ever. He's using nicotine patches, but that might not be helping with his current temperament. The combination of Trump in the White House and Carl's painful withdrawal from his forty-year Kools habit is not a good set-up for two days of Callahan family conviviality."
Here was strange news. I said, "Your cousin smoked Kools? What was he, some kind of menthol freak?" Before I gave up the filthy and deeply satisfying nicotine habit in my thirties, I would not have dreamt of sucking in the fumes from something that tasted to me like the chemicals from a faulty air-conditioning unit.
"It was a statement of racial solidarity," Beth said. "Well, not solidarity exactly. Carl's as pasty white as the rest of the Callahans. But he said most African-American smokers smoked Kools, and his preference for the brand was a gesture of pro-black moral and political support similar to his membership in the A.M.E. Zion Methodist Church. Not that he ever attended services there. Carl's a Bill-Maher-style atheist--which he is more than likely to expound on before this jolly weekend is over and done."
Now it was Timmy who let out a long, deep, cabernet-flavored breath. He didn't have a chance to add anything more, however, for a car pulled up in front of the inn and two people climbed out, a late-middle-aged man and a late-middle-aged woman, who looked forebodingly sweaty and deeply displeased.